Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights of Prisoners

Justices Side With Witch and Satanist

Prison Inmate
Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights of Prison Inmates. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

In a rare unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of a federal law requiring prisons to accommodate the religious practices and beliefs of inmates.

In a case brought by a witch and a Satanist, the Court agreed that inmates in an Ohio state prison had been unconstitutionally denied their First Amendment rights to practice religion, and to access religious literature and ceremonial items.

The law in question, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, was intended, in part, to protect the religious rights of prisoners. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down parts of the law, on grounds that they violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state clause, which prohibits the federal government from making laws "respecting an establishment of religion." 

In the Supreme Court's unanimous decision upholding the law, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg disagreed with the lower court, writing: "It [the law in question] confers no privileged status on any particular religious sect, and singles out no bona fide faith for disadvantageous treatment.”

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act requires prisons receiving federal funding to accommodate prisoners' diverse religious practices and beliefs, unless they could prove that doing so would jeopardize order and safety within the prison or surrounding communities.


"We do not read [the law] to elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety," wrote Justice Ginsburg. "We have no cause to believe that [the law] would not be applied in an appropriately balanced way, without sensitivity to security concerns. Our decisions indicate that an accommodation must be measured so that it does not override other significant interests."

"“This Court has long recognized that the government may … accommodate religious practices … without violating the Establishment Clause," she wrote. "Foremost, we find RLUIPA’s institutionalized-persons provision compatible with the Establishment Clause because it alleviates exceptional government-created burdens on private religious exercise."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised the Supreme Court's action.

"Prison officials often place unjustified burdens on prisoners who wish to practice their religion," said Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project in a press release. "This important law allows prisoners to challenge such arbitrary burdens, and we welcome this decision upholding its constitutionality."

In its amicus brief to the Supreme Court, the ACLU argued that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act requires only that prisons remove any “substantial” government-imposed burdens on religious exercise or expression by inmates. The ACLU also argued that the ACT did not violate the First Amendment because it did not give inmates any incentives to become religious or to change their religious beliefs or practices.

""It is wrong to punish prisoners by denying them their religious liberty," said Alexander.

"We urge the states to fully implement RLUIPA's requirements."

The entire decision of the Supreme Court can be found in the case of Cutter v. Wilkinson.

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Longley, Robert. "Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights of Prisoners." ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2016, Longley, Robert. (2016, May 17). Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights of Prisoners. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights of Prisoners." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 15, 2017).